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Grasping the Genius of Ramey Chardonnays
By Linda Murphy
Aug 18, 2009
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The Chardonnay in glass No. 1 was tart and lean, a bit like Chablis yet with a hole in the middle. Glass No. 2 was far more open and generous, with nicely ripened pear and citrus fruit and a palate richness cut by brisk acidity. The wine in the third glass was more phenolic, tasted singularly of baked golden apples and was a bit unbalanced.

The wines, made by David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in Sonoma County, were from the same vintage (2008), the same vineyard (the Martinelli family’s Charles Ranch near Bodega, in the Sonoma Coast appellation) and vinified the same way, with whole-cluster pressing, native-yeast fermentation, 100 percent secondary malolactic fermentation, and sur lie aging in Burgundian oak barrels with regular lees stirring, to keep the wine in contact with the yeast.

The one difference in the three Chardonnays? The grapes for these experimental batches were harvested at different ripeness levels. The clusters for the first wine were picked on Sept. 18 at 22.2° Brix; those for the second wine were harvested on Sept. 25 at 23.6° Brix, and those for glass No. 3 were picked on Sept. 30 at 24.5° Brix.

As the sugar accumulation increased in the grapes, the alcohol levels in the wines advanced accordingly: No. 1 was at 14 percent alcohol, No. 2 at 14.8 percent and No. 3 at 15.4 percent. In tasting the wines, the sweet spot certainly was wine No. 2, showing that not only is the "less is more" philosophy not always true, but also that one can have too much of a good thing.

While I am always looking for lower-alcohol, crisp white wines with energy and compatibility with a wide range of foods, I have concluded that California Chardonnay – at least the high-end stuff, produced from premiere cru-equivalent vineyards such as those Ramey sources -- needs to have some oomph: ripe fruit, oak contact, and a textural richness that comes from lees contact. By extension, they will almost always have significant, yet not over-the-top, alcohols.

Ramey’s glass No. 1 simply wasn’t a complete wine, as much as I wanted to embrace it for its lower alcohol. Glass No. 3 was too potent and ponderous. Glass No. 2 was just right. It’s one component of Ramey’s 2008 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay blend, which has yet to be bottled, and he approaches all his Chardonnays with the same goal.

"I want to balance classic elegance with California fruit," he says. "Texture is what I want. How does the wine feel in your mouth? That’s the pleasure quotient."

Acidity plays a major role in the texture and fresh taste of any wine, and Ramey pays close attention to it. His Chardonnays (he also produces fine Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignons) would be too fruity for my taste if they did not have mouthwatering acidity to balance the full-on flavors.

Ramey is not shy about admitting that he adds tartaric acid to wines that require it. It’s not a bad thing, perfectly legal and safe, and a practice widely used in the California wine industry. Marketers don’t like to talk about "acid," anticipating consumer horror, so they refer to "natural acidity," and indeed, some grapes develop plenty of their refreshing bite all on their own. Yet fruit from many vineyards, particularly those in warm locations, need a booster shot of acid at the winery in order to produce a vibrant, fresh-tasting wine.

When to add acid, and how much, is the key. Ramey makes any necessary additions when the grapes first arrive at the winery, so that the tartaric acid can "marry" with the fruit as early as possible, and be integrated during fermentation. Some winemakers realize much later in the process that a wine doesn’t have the crispness they desire, and add acid toward the end of vinification. These wines can often be identified by their SweeTart candy taste; there is nothing of the sort in Ramey’s Chardonnays.

His resume includes a UC Davis graduate degree and positions at Chateau Pétrus, Simi, Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus and Rudd Estate. At Ramey Wine Cellars, which he founded in 1996 with his wife, Carla, in Healdsburg, Ramey produces six Chardonnays – three appellational blends (Carneros, Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast) and three single-vineyard wines (Hyde and Hudson in Napa Carneros, and Ritchie in Russian River Valley).

I’m not a huge California Chardonnay fan, particularly when it comes to the ultra-rich, fat, buttery style (which appears to be fading away, thankfully). Yet I find Ramey’s wines irresistible; they’re intense, yes, yet also full of energy. Oak sits in the background, adding texture more than it does aroma and flavor. Minerality sneaks in most of the Chardonnays, and while they typically undergo full malolactic fermentation, there is no trace of the buttered-popcorn notes that so many Chardonnays have.

They also stand the test of time. "I make Chardonnay to age 10 years from vintage," Ramey says. "The 2004s are just now starting to show themselves."

Indeed, the Ramey 2001 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay from Carneros is vibrant and juicy, with citrus and tropical flavors that are both rich and refreshing, unfolding in layers on the palate.

The winemaking is similar for all the Chardonnays, so that the vineyards dictate the character of the wines. One difference is that the appellational series wines spend 12 months in French oak barrels, approximately one-third of them new; the vineyard designates age for 20 months in two-thirds new oak.

Ramey purchases grapes from cool-climate vineyards, and the stars are the single-vineyard wines from the Hyde and Hudson vineyards in Napa Carneros and the Ritchie Vineyard in Russian River Valley. All are worth a taste, even by those who think they don’t like California Chardonnay. Hey, even I was converted.

Tasting notes on the Reviews page.